KIYC: Thousands of rape kits remain untested, gathering dust in New Jersey hospitals
TRIGGER WARNING: This story discusses the topic of sexual assault and rape and could be difficult for some to hear.
Imagine being sexually assaulted and getting your attacker to make a recorded confession, only for prosecutors to say it wasn’t enough for them to file charges. A New Jersey woman says that’s what happened to her. And as a result, a Kane In Your Corner investigation finds her rape kit is one of thousands that remain untested, gathering dust in hospitals and storage units across the state.
Lena Morrison is still haunted by the memory of what happened to her inside a dorm at Ramapo University.
“I couldn't move; he was stronger than me,” she says. “I kind of just had to lay there while he kept having sex with me”.
Morrison had gone to the campus to meet a man she’d met on a dating app but says things spiraled out of control.
“He wrapped his arm around me, kind of like in a chokehold,” Morrison says. “I just kept thinking, ‘What if I pass out? Like, what if he kills me by accident?’”
When the assault was over, Morrison went to the hospital to have her body swabbed for evidence. But investigators with the Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office told her they would not press charges. In a phone call, which Morrison recorded, an investigator can be heard, telling her: “We don’t have something that rises to the level of a criminal offense.”
One of the problems, according to investigators, is that Morrison had initially gone to the campus with the intent of having consensual sex. That, they said, would make it nearly impossible to prove she’d been assaulted, even though New Jersey law says victims may withdraw consent.
“He just sounded so condescending,” Morrison says. “He was like, ‘Well, you went there for consensual sex, did you not?’ I'm like, what does that have to do with him choking and raping me? Like, I didn't consent to that.”
So, Morrison secretly recorded conversations with her alleged attacker. News 12 is not naming him because he has not been criminally charged. But in one recording, he admits his attorney told him to lie about the incident because “she said ‘what you just admitted to me could land you in a federal prison.’” In another, he says, “I apologize for raping you… and I'll live with the guilt for the rest of my life.”
Prosecutors told Morrison they still did not have enough to go forward.
“What you may interpret as an as an admission may not legally be an admission,” an investigator said. “Do you understand?”
Legal analyst Robert Bianchi, a former prosecutor, says the handling of the case raises questions. “Is there probable cause to charge for that? In my mind, based on what you're telling me, absolutely.”
Bianchi says that at the very least, he would have brought the case before a grand jury.
Because prosecutors declined to pursue Morrison’s case, her rape kit remains untested. It’s one of thousands gathering dust in hospitals, county prosecutors’ offices and storage units across New Jersey.
“The kit, sitting on a shelf untested, is really a demonstration of how the criminal justice system treats sexual assault,” says Ilse Knecht, director of policy and advocacy for the Joyful Heart Foundation, which advocates for sexual assault survivors.
She adds, “There are just case after case after case of individuals who were just thrown away and just discredited from step one and case closed before an investigation even started.”
Kane In Your Corner obtained years of records of forensic examinations conducted in New Jersey. According to one survey of rape kits, released by the Office of the Attorney General this year, 1 in 3 rape kits released to law enforcement go untested.
There are also wide disparities in testing from one county to another. In Bergen County, where Morrison’s assault occurred, the data shows fewer than 20% of kits turned over to law enforcement were tested, among the lowest rates in the state.
“Justice delayed is really justice denied for these victims,” says state Sen. Nia Gill (D – Montclair). She’s written legislation that would require all rape kits that survivors release to law enforcement be sent to the crime lab within ten business days and analyzed within six months.
“This is a test-all-kits bill, no discretion,” Gill says.
The issue of prosecutorial discretion has become contentious among advocates with some contending that if a survivor consents to having their rape kit tested for DNA, prosecutors should never overrule their wishes.
In March, New Jersey Attorney General Matthew Platkin issued a new directive limiting prosecutorial discretion somewhat. The directive said that prosecutors could no longer decide not to test a kit simply because they suspected the sex was consensual or because the victim had filed a complaint against a current or former spouse or partner.
In an interview with Kane In Your Corner, Platkin said “The directive is making clear that (testing) is the expectation. Only in limited circumstances would a kit not be tested.”
But Platkin’s directive stopped short of requiring law enforcement to test all kits released to them, which means survivors like Morrison still have no assurance their kits will be tested.
While the Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office declined to discuss the specifics of Morrison’s case, spokesperson Elizabeth Rebein said, “There are many reasons why a kit might not be tested” - including “the discretion exercised by a prosecutor that testing would not impact the case outcome.”
Morrison, for one, hopes that changes. “They see a lot of cases, I'm sure, but the ones that they don't do, or the ones that they throw away, it's not just cases, they’re people.”
Percentage of rape kits tested by county:
Source: NJ Office of the Attorney General, Forensic Examination (SAFE) Kit Survey, March 13, 2023